2019 was supposed to be the year that the USMNT put the disaster in Trinidad & Tobago officially behind them. Instead, they flopped and floundered their way to more questions than answers in a year of change and doubt.
The first game of the year was also the first game of the Gregg Berhalter era, and while there were plenty of positive signs early on, it began to fall apart midway through the summer, and by the end of yesterday’s comprehensive win over troubled Cuba, there is plenty of unknown moving forward.
Berhalter began his tenure with friendly wins over Panama and Costa Rica, outscoring those opponents 5-0 and seeing the emergence of fringe players like Djordje Mihailovic, Daniel Lovitz, and Christian Ramirez who had broken out under interim boss Dave Sarachen but were also afforded some time with the main man in charge. It quickly became clear, however, that those players were not the ones to take the U.S. forward as the regulars returned for the win over Ecuador.
Flaws began to slowly emerge in the Ecuador win and the ensuing Chile draw in March, and as Berhalter dug in for the long spring international layoff, he prepared the plan for the Gold Cup summer. Whatever the plan, it did not emerge as expected. Veterans Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore returned for the summer slog, but they were powerless to stop the train from slowly screeching to a halt. The group stage went well against inferior opponents – including a 6-0 drubbing of Trinidad & Tobago to secure some minor revenge for two years prior – but a 1-0 win over lowly Curacao in the quarterfinals saw bubbles being to rise.
The US managed to get by Jamaica in the semis thanks to Christian Pulisic‘s textbook heroics, but the finals were a different story. A 1-0 loss to Mexico that saw the U.S. thoroughly dominated was the first real coin to drop, followed by a thorough 3-0 butt-whooping by Mexico’s B-side two months later in a friendly on home soil.
It all fell apart from there. They drew 1-1 with Uruguay’s backups a few days later, and then after skating by defection-laden Cuba, the worst result of the slate saw the U.S. stunned in Canada in Nations League play. The result not only proved a humbling reminder of the team’s work to do, but also put their Nations League standing in real jeopardy far earlier than any fan deemed acceptable.
The U.S. rescued its position and secured passage to the next round of the competition, but real problems remain. Berhalter’s coaching and tactical acumen have been questioned on multiple fronts, with many wondering whether his possessional style of play is too ambitious for a country still searching for top talent.
Still, the most pressing issue seems to be the suddenly paper-thin talent pool that currently troubles the nation. Injuries to players like John Brooks, Michael Bradley, and even Pulisic have left the United States forced to deploy players far below World Cup quality in their stead. Formerly promising critical young players such as DeAndre Yedlin and Weston McKennie have seemingly regressed, but with little behind them in terms of depth, Berhalter is forced to toil on hoping they recapture their form of not long ago.
Amid a toilsome year, the capture of Sergino Dest and the true emergence of Jordan Morris are individual success stories that deserve merit. Dest heavily considered his eligibility for the Netherlands but was ultimately swayed by Berhalter’s vision. Morris has returned from a serious knee injury by reinventing himself as an inverted winger, and his style switch has been an unmitigated triumph, transforming from a questionable developmental project to a near-lock in the squad.
In addition, Christian Pulisic’s rise to international stardom must also be considered. Unlike the development of Yedlin and McKennie which have been suddenly put in peril, Pulisic has continued to excel at the club level, moving to Chelsea and bursting onto the Premier League scene after a brief period of uncertainty. He continues to carry the U.S. side as well when given a chance, but as the Gold Cup disappointment shows, he clearly can’t do it on his own.
Still, in a year with few competitive matches against teams of the quality the United States aspires to equal, Berhalter failed the test. The overall body of work was simply not acceptable. He has the full support of U.S. Soccer for now – at least publicly – but there is much to be done as the U.S. moves further into the World Cup cycle and towards a potential return to the big dance. Berhalter must continue to establish his identity, but more importantly he must develop a talent pool that both excels at developing its most important players and finds those who can contribute in positions of its greatest need.
While the small success stories deserve to factor in, the simple fact is Berhalter does not deserve a passing grade, as questions of where the United States fit into the larger world picture suddenly loom large.
OVERALL GRADE: D+
Full 2019 USMNT results
Jan 28 – W 3-0 vs. Panama (friendly)
Feb 2 – W 2-0 vs. Costa Rica (friendly)
Mar 22 – W 1-0 vs. Ecuador (friendly)
Mar 27 – D 1-1 vs. Chile (friendly)
June 6 – L 1-0 vs. Jamaica (friendly)
June 9 – L 3-0 vs. Venezuela (friendly)
June 19 – W 4-0 vs. Guyana (Gold Cup)
June 23 – W 6-0 vs. Trinidad & Tobago (Gold Cup)
July 1 – W 1-0 vs. Curacao (Gold Cup QF)
July 4 – W 3-1 vs. Jamaica (Gold Cup SF)
July 8 – L 1-0 vs. Mexico (Gold Cup Finals)
Sept 7 – L 3-0 vs. Mexico (friendly)
Sept 11 – D 1-1 vs. Uruguay (friendly)
Oct 12 – W 7-0 vs. Cuba (CONCACAF Nations League)
Oct 16 – L 2-0 @ Canada (CONCACAF Nations League)
Nov 16 – W 4-1 vs. Canada (CONCACAF Nations League)
Nov 19 – W 4-0 @ Cuba (CONCACAF Nations League)